Copenhagen's flourishing food scene, world-renowned architecture and furniture design, and rich history make the Danish capital a popular city to explore, even if you're visiting on a budget.

To help you get the most from your time, here is our guide to the best experiences in Copenhagen, a surprisingly compact and easy-to-navigate capital city.

1. Wander the waterfront for classic Copenhagen views

One of Copenhagen's many charms is its harborside location and multitude of canals. The most iconic spot is Nyhavn, known for its colorful 18th-century buildings and tall ships. Grab a few photos and enjoy a stroll around the beautiful waterfront – it is absolutely free, which is a win in a city renowned for being expensive.

Planning tip: From Nyhavn, head to the Little Mermaid statue on the harbor, based on Hans Christian Andersen's famous fairy tale. Along the way, admire the impressive Opera House, the striking Gefion Fountain and the historic, 17th-century Kastellet fortress, which is open to the public and free to visit.

People relaxing in a park in front of a building with two towers
Kongens Have, by Rosenborg Castle, is one of Copenhagen's best-loved green spaces © Jonathan Smith / Lonely Planet

2. Get a taste of the grandeur of Royal Copenhagen

Denmark has a rich royal history, with a monarchy whose origins date back over 1000 years. In December 2023, Queen Margrethe II announced her abdication, handing the throne to her son, the Crown Prince who became King Frederik X in January 2024. When in Copenhagen, King Frederik and his wife, Queen Mary, make their home at Amalienborg. This elegant palace is made up of four buildings facing onto a central square, overlooked by the impressive dome of the Marmorkirken (Marble Church). 

The Royal Life Guard are on watch at Amalienborg 24 hours a day, with the Changing of the Guard taking place daily at noon. The palace is also home to a small museum, with a focus on kings and queens from the 1800s to the present day; it includes a treasury featuring a collection of Fabergé jewels.

The Royal Reception Rooms in the working palace of Christiansborg include the ostentatious Throne Room and the elegant Great Hall, home to a collection of fascinating modern tapestries depicting over 1000 years of Danish history.

At Rosenborg, a former Royal castle built in 1606, rooms are packed with intriguing historical items, including Denmark's former coronation thrones, and the fantastic treasury includes the stunning Crown Jewels. Rosenborg Castle is located in the sweeping Kongens Have (the King's Garden), perhaps the most beloved green space in Copenhagen. 

Boats on the canal in Copenhagen, Denmark
Hire a boat or join a tour and head out on a cruise along Copenhagen's canals © vladacanon / Getty Images

3. Go boating on Copenhagen's canals

Experience Copenhagen from the water with a boat tour or kayaking adventure along the city's harbor and canals. It's a great way to explore, and you'll pass one of the city's architectural gems, the Black Diamond at the Det Kongelige Bibliotek, on the charming Christianshavn canal.

Hey Captain offers a fantastic small-group experience, with each comfortable craft seating up to 12 passengers. Drinks are included in the cost of the tour, adding to the relaxed social atmosphere. GoBoat lets you be the captain of your own solar-powered boat and also does "sail-in" concerts and other events on the harbor.

Larger companies such as Stromma and Netto-Bådene offer one-hour canal tours on boats that can accommodate up to 150, which are a good-value way to get out on the water. And finally, GreenKayak loans out kayaks for free in exchange for picking up a bucketful of trash while you're out on the water, helping to keep the waterways healthy and clean.

Planning tip: Some of the boating services close for the winter months (between October and April), so check online in advance to see which are operating.

4. Take a dive into history at Copenhagen's best museums

Copenhagen's museums provide deep insights into the history of Denmark and its capital through incredible artifacts and engaging exhibits. Walk through thousands of years of Danish history at the Danish National Museum, with an incredible collection that includes finds such as a Bronze Age sun chariot and Viking rune stones. The fantastic Stories of Denmark exhibit provides an intriguing look at Danish history, life and traditions from the Renaissance to the present day.

The Museum of Copenhagen tells the story of the city with displays on buildings, people and culture, and interactive installations that bring history to life. At Designmuseum Danmark, discover works by Danish design greats such as Arne Jacobsen, creator of the iconic Swan and Egg chairs, and explore how design plays a role in everyday life, from cutlery to typefaces.

The Danish Architecture Center, located in the harborside Blox building, has great exhibitions on the connections between Danish culture and the country's celebrated architecture and design traditions.

A slice of bread topped with meat, cucumbers, dried fruit, lettuce and orange slices
Smørrebrød is a popular lunch dish in Copenhagen © Marlanph / Getty Images

5. Taste the flavors of Copenhagen's Nordic cuisine

Since spearheading the New Nordic cuisine movement in the early 2000s, Copenhagen has gained a reputation worldwide for its food scene, with incredible dining opportunities around every corner. Today, there are 15 Michelin-starred restaurants in central Copenhagen and a multitude of Michelin-recommended options for enjoying this quintessentially Nordic cooking style.

The must-try lunch dish in Copenhagen is smørrebrød (slices of sourdough rye bread piled high with a variety of toppings such as meats, pickles and cheese). Visit Restaurant Kronborg for a taste of tradition or Aamanns 1921 for a more modern take on this classic dish. Other essential foodie experiences include sampling artisanal baked goods from the historic Sankt Peders Bakery, browsing the wonderful Torvehallerne Market, and stopping by a neighborhood pølsevogn (sausage wagon) for a Danish-style hot dog.

6. Shop for Danish design

There are many superb shops to visit in Copenhagen. Strøget is one of the longest pedestrian shopping streets in the world, stretching for close to a mile, and options here range from souvenir stalls and high street chains to international designer brands. Strøget is also a haven for lovers of Danish design, with iconic names such as Royal Copenhagen and Georg Jensen, alongside superb design shops such as HAY House and Stilleben. Head to Illums Bolighus to browse a range of Danish design brands and pick up high-quality mementos.

Local tip: For something a little different, head to Værnedamsvej and Gammel Kongevej at the border of the Vesterbro and Frederiksberg neighborhoods – two streets brimming with independent shops, studios and Danish fashion brands such as Wood Wood and Ganni.

Cyclists ride through the hip streets of a city neighborhood, with independent shops and street art murals
Enjoy the energetic vibes of Nørrebro © ale de sun / Shutterstock

7. Linger in Copenhagen's coolest neighborhoods, Refshaleøen and Nørrebro 

While Copenhagen has plenty of historical sights worth seeing, the capital also has modern, cool spots that Copenhageners take great pride in. Set aside some time to enjoy the hipster vibes of the Refshaleøen and Nørrebro neighborhoods.

Head to Refshaleøen by bike, have your coffee and croissant at La Banchina, and finish off the morning with a dip in the ocean, just like the Danes do. Continue to Lille Bakery or Øens Have, an urban garden, for a locally produced vegetable-based lunch or snack. Head back to Nørrebro and go shopping along the local's favorite street, Jægersborggade, then take another break at Coffee Collective, which serves the best coffee in Copenhagen, or a beer in the park from Mikkeller & Friends, which brews its own craft beer.

While you're here, take a stroll through Assistens Kirkegård, which is actually a cemetery but also a favorite spot for a walk for Nørrebro locals. Finish off your day with dinner at the fancy but budget-friendly Oysters and Grill, renowned for fresh seafood and steak. Then start the night with bottled beer at a bodega, a traditional, Danish dive bar – recommendations include Nørre Bodega, Understellet and Diligencen.

8. Let your inner child run free at Tivoli Gardens

Few capitals can pull off a whimsical amusement park right in the heart of the city, but Copenhagen can. Open for 175 years, Tivoli Gardens is Copenhagen's favorite intergenerational playground, an escapist fantasy of fairy-tale pavilions, romantic gardens and funfair rides. Kids will be transported to new lands by the Chinese lake, the Moorish palace, and futuristic creations like something out of the imagination of HG Wells. Add to this a busy schedule of fireworks displays, a pantomime theater, children's shows, and live shows running from ballet and classical music to rock acts. It's no surprise that this is one of the city's top distractions.

Two people with bikes in front of colourful walls covered in graffiti
Christiania is the center of Copenhagen's counterculture © Pierre Aden / Getty Images

9. Experience the counterculture of Christiania

A utopian commune founded by militant squatters in 1971, ramshackle Christiania remains one of Copenhagen's most distinctive corners. While opinions about its relevance in 21st-century Europe vary, the city's marijuana-scented "Freetown" continues to exude an almost surreal atmosphere – part shambolic circus, part makeshift architectural expo, part urban oasis.

This is the city's counterculture heart, home to highly principled environmentalists, craftspeople, old-school hippies and, admittedly, a fair number of people with drug and alcohol issues. Explore beyond its shabby main drag, and you'll be rewarded by a beguiling jumble of craft studios, tranquil trails and Copenhagen's kookiest, most imaginative dwellings. 

Detour: When in Christiania, pay a visit to the nearby neighborhood of Christianshavn. Here you'll find picturesque canals with tiny, very old and crooked townhouses, sidewalk cafes such as Parterre and overall good vibes.

This article was first published March 2020 and updated 1 day ago

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